Winter Running... Outdoors!Running in the winter is easy! Wind chills in the teens, who cares? Snow covered streets, no problem! Hey, its always sunny and 70 on a treadmill. There’s a lot to be said about never having to worry about layering or whether to wear gloves or mittens. It can be below zero with snow coming down and there you are in shorts and a singlet. How cool is that?! I certainly understand the appeal but to me, there’s only one problem, you’re inside.
I’m one of those runners that just hates being inside. Don’t get me wrong, I like being warm and comfortable just as much as the next guy. I just enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to be comfortable outside while Mother Nature is at her worst or, in my opinion, her best. Dressing properly is a good start to winter comfort. That doesn’t mean throwing on multitudinous layers of thermals, sweaters, coats, hats and gloves. Bundling up like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” will have you sweating like a mule on the equator and make you just as uncomfortable as being under-dressed. Nope, the trick here is to dress specific to the day’s conditions. You want to feel just a tad under-dressed when starting out because as you begin to move and get into your flow, your own body heat will warm you up. Before you decide on what to wear, think about the temperature and the wind conditions on your planned route as well as how long you’re going to be out there. I know some runners that will absolutely not deviate from their daily route so their clothing choice must match up with whatever that route brings, weather-wise. On the other hand, having some flexibility allows you to avoid the worst of those conditions or at least being able to use them to your advantage. Having those blustery northwest winds to your back requires a lot less protection than does running directly into it. If you are doing an ‘out-n-back’ route, run into the wind first. This way, if you work up a sweat, it’ll be on the way home which saves you from having to run into a cold wind with damp clothes. This brings up the subject of ‘sweat’ and the challenges it brings.
Winter running doesn’t mean you’re not going to sweat, you will. It might not be much but even a little has the potential to cause discomfort if not transferred away from your body. This highlights the importance of proper base-layer clothing. Base-layer is the clothing item closest to our skin. It is crucial that this item be made of a fabric that wicks the moisture away from our skin, either to another clothing item or the air where it will evaporate. Another description of the process is “moisture transference”. Most of these fabrics are made in some version of polyester. Poly has two essential qualities; it can not absorb and hold moisture, it transfers it. The clothing item will retain some dampness but it will not be soaking wet. The other important quality of polyester is it will still retain thermal properties when damp so it will still keep you warm. The one fabrication you do NOT want next to your skin is cotton. Cotton is like a sponge when it comes to moisture, it sucks it up and holds it. Making matters worse, wet cotton has no thermal value so you’ll quickly get chilled and stay that way. Wool is not ideal in the sense that it, too, will retain moisture although even when wet, it will keep you warm. This brings up the next important clothing item, the outer layer. Usually, this is a jacket or shell, depending on the temperature, wind, etc. Here again, this needs to be constructed in fabrics that will continue the moisture transference. The fabrics used in high-end jackets and shells are woven in such a way as to allow the smaller molecules of dampness to travel to the jackets’ outer surface where it can be evaporated but tight enough to keep rain out. Some jackets are water-proof while others are water resistant. The other role these jackets or shells serve is that of a wind breaker. When it comes to what we wear on our legs, we have some options based, again, on the conditions. A lot of people will go bare-legged even on the coldest days. I’m not a fan of doing this because while my legs may be able to withstand the cold, they get chapped and raw. Running tights follow the same principles as base layer tops in that they will wick moisture away from the skin. Tights aren’t for everybody, especially guys who are self-conscious wearing something that form-fitting. They might prefer running pants that are, shall we say, less revealing. Gloves and hats are another crucial aspect of winter comfort. Here again, you don’t want a big ol’ bulky knit hat soaking wet from sweat. Look for ones that have wicking properties. Gloves are fine on most days around here in the winter but on those super-cold mornings, mittens will provide better warmth.
As mentioned above, flexibility in choosing a course or a time to run plays a big part in winter running. We do the same thing in the hot weather. Have a few different course options that will allow you to minimize the time exposed to strong winds or wet, slushy surfaces. One word of caution when it comes to winter running, ice. Ice is the one factor that will keep me indoors, especially if I’m planning on a run in the dark. If you are not 100% sure that your course options are ice-free, you probably want to stay inside. In cases like that, I’ll switch around my schedule to do some weight training or Yoga and save the run for better conditions. While avoiding a run on icy surfaces, I absolutely love running in snow. As long as the roads aren’t slippery, I love nothing more than a run as it begins to snow. It goes without saying that particular caution needs to be paid to running on snowy roads with heavy car traffic. As a rule, I’ll hit the boards for a snow run. Try it, you’ll love the experience. I also love a run on those days where the weather reports are warning everyone of record low temps and eye-watering winds. I may not be out there long but I love the thought of people seeing me thinking, “look at that idiot, he must be out of his mind running on a day like this”. I’m not going to tell you that running on brutally cold days is all peaches and cream cause some days, it’s downright unpleasant. I always give myself the ’20 minute rule’ which basically says that after 20 minutes, if I’m not getting comfortable and enjoying myself, it’s time to call it a day. A word of advice; if you’re going to use the 20 minute rule, make sure you’re back at your starting point at 20 minutes!